Peony in Love: A Novel

by Lisa See

Hardcover, 2007

Call number




Random House (2007), Edition: 1, 304 pages


Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML:NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER �?� �??A complex period tapestry inscribed with the age-old tragedy of love and death.�?��??The New York Times Book Review �??I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.�?� In seventeenth-century China, in an elaborate villa on the shores of Hangzhou�??s West Lake, Peony lives a sheltered life. One night, during a theatrical performance in her family�??s garden, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man and is immediately overcome with emotion. So begins Peony�??s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow, the living world and the afterworld. Eventually expelled from all she�??s known, Peony is thrust into a realm where hungry ghosts wander the earth, written words have the power to hurt and kill, and dreams are as vivid as waking life. Lisa See�??s novel, based on actual historical events, evokes vividly another time and place�??where three generations of women become enmeshed in a dramatic story, uncover past secrets and tragedies, and learn that love can transcend death. Peony in Love will make you ache in heart and mind for young Peony and all the women of the world who want to be heard. BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from Lisa See's Shanghai Girls. Praise for Peony in Love �??Electrifying . . . a fascinating and often surprising story of women helping women, women hurting women and women misunderstanding each other.�?��??The Miami Herald �??See mines an intriguing vein of Chinese history . . . weaving fact and fiction into a dense romantic tapestry of time and place as she meditates on the meaning of love, the necessity of self-expression and the influence of art.�?��??Los Angeles Times �??A transporting read, to lost worlds earthly and otherwise.�?��??Chicago Tribune �??A quietly beautiful tale that sneaks into the reader�??s heart . . . Not since Susie Salmon of Alice Sebold�??s The Lovely Bones has a ghostly narrator been as believable and empathetic.�?��??San Antonio Express-News �??There�??s much here to be savored and… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member littlebookworm
Living in seventeenth-century China, Peony has never left her family’s home. Her mother has kept her inside to maintain her virtue and modesty as she prepares to marry out to a stranger. Peony is nearly sixteen, and on her birthday, her father has planned a performance of her favorite play, The
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Peony Pavilion. As the only child, Peony has been educated beyond what her mother deems appropriate, and as a result has a great appreciation for literature. On the night of the play, Peony accidentally meets a handsome young poet, immediately falling in love with him. In despair over her approaching marriage to a stranger and consumed by obsession for the play and her poet, Peony’s life spirals into a haunting struggle through the nebulous underworld and culminates with her quest to give Chinese women a voice.

I’ve been looking forward to this novel since it came out and was pleased to finally have the opportunity to read it. Lisa See didn’t let me down; while not as masterful as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I read before blogging, Peony in Love is a romantic story about the struggles of women in China with an abundance of fascinating historical detail and a healthy dose of fantasy. Peony dies in the first third of the novel (this is revealed on the back cover, so I don’t consider it a spoiler) and enters a world of Chinese mythology, where Lisa See uses her research on those beliefs to elaborate on how Peony can still communicate and influence those she loves. We know her ending cannot be totally happy, but her story is still compelling and absorbing.

My favorite aspect of the book was how it mirrored The Peony Pavilion in many ways but also reflected real historical events. I have never read the play, but enough is described in this novel to make it clear that Peony is essentially trying to become Liniang and get her Mengmei to bring her back to life. It was fascinating and maddening to realize that many young women did actually die of “lovesickness” in this way. Basically, it’s believed that they became anorexic, which is horrifying, to both gain control over their lives and because they supposedly believed that true love would save them. Even though this sounds a little far-fetched, it’s easy to relate to Peony and sympathize with her. She’s fallen in love and believes that now she is forced to marry a stranger. I loved the details of her preparations for marriage (except the repeat footbinding!) and the ceremonies enacted before and after her death. This is a part of the world and a period in history I just don’t read enough about.

Better yet, I liked how the novel emphasized the role of women in China and how it has been eroded throughout the centuries. The Three Wives’ Commentary on the play actually exists, as did the writing groups and female poets in the novel, and I’m incredibly intrigued by them and want to learn more about the movement. This is why I love historical fiction! Not only did I get a great story, but I also got a peek into unfamiliar history and a strong desire to learn what’s true and what’s fiction. Peony in Love is definitely recommended.
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LibraryThing member pokarekareana
Peony is barely sixteen when she falls in love with a mysterious stranger. The product of a sheltered upbringing, and already betrothed to be married, she is devastated and plays out the part of the lead character in her favourite opera, who dies of lovesickness, and comes back to haunt her
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I’m going to say something that may be controversial. I liked this more than Lisa See’s very, very, exceedingly very famous and popular Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Let the lynchings begin in earnest in a moment, but first I must say this – I was entirely captivated by this story. It was complex and emotionally arresting, and parts of it did remind me very much of being sixteen and a bit lovestruck. Lisa See has produced another wonderful read.
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LibraryThing member memccauley6
What a strange and compelling book. I read it in one day, practically in one sitting. It all had a slow and dream-like quality, which is understandable because the narrator dies and tells most of the story from the afterlife. I think readers expecting the pacing of a traditional novel will be
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disappointed by Peony’s protracted journey to enlightenment. What kept me reading were the vivid descriptions of daily life, beliefs, and rituals in seventeenth century China. Just fascinating. Warning: There is a horrifying foot-binding scene that made a couple of the characters vomit, and I wanted to also.
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LibraryThing member karen_o
"There are several elements here - Tang Xianzu's opera, the lovesick maidens, the history of The Three Wives' Commentary, and the societal changes that allowed it to be written. I know they're rather complicated and overlap a bit, so please bear with me." So says Lisa See, the author of Peony in
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Love in her notes at the end of the novel.

Fortunately, I also found the text of the notes on the author's web site under the heading `On Writing Peony in Love' while I was reading the book. If I hadn't, I'm sure I would have given up on this novel at about page 110. The notes provided much needed insight into the author's purpose and an invaluable historical context for what I was reading.

I did find the historical aspects and the vivid descriptions of the Chinese afterlife fascinating. Having already read Snowflower and the Secret Fan I didn't feel I needed another description of footbinding so I confess that I skipped that brief passage. The author's ultimate point is clearly the issue of women's voices and `a woman's need to be heard.' She makes this point strongly - and repeatedly. For all of that, there was still much to enjoy in the novel.

In my opinion, this book doesn't live up to her earlier novel, Snowflower and the Secret Fan. I really feel the publisher should change the Author's Notes to a Foreword and I urge anyone who chooses to read this to read the Author's Notes first.
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LibraryThing member PghDragonMan
I think this is the first book I’ve read where the ending could be summed up as “And she died happily ever after”. While not exactly Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, some scenes did remind me of both this movie and Beetle Juice. Confused? Let me try and explain . . .

The book is set at the
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beginning of the Manchu Dynasty, roughly the latter part of the 17th Century. Lisa See does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the formal stylized daily rituals that made up life for the wealthier classes. Peony, of the title Peony In Love, is the daughter of an aspiring courtier. In an effort to improve his chances of an appointment, he stages scenes from a lavish operatic cycle, the Peony Pavilion. Peony, the daughter, thinks the event is being staged for the benefit of her birthday and upcoming marriage to a young man from another family. This is one of many mistaken assumptions on Peony’s part.

Many elements of history are woven into the story. The bloody takeover by the Manchus, integral to understanding some of the characters motivations, did occur, but the author has condensed the time period considerably. The Peony Pavilion was a real opera of the time as were many of the women poets mentioned throughout the book. While still repressive in many aspects, I was surprised to find the seeds of feminism existing in this time period.

I was also fascinated with the Chinese beliefs about death, spirits and the afterworld as described in the book. The author’s notes indicate these are traditional beliefs of the time. These beliefs play an integral part in the plot and as the basis for my likening this to the movies referenced in my opening paragraph. This belief system is what empowers Peony’s ghost to act on the living from beyond the grave.

Overall, I found this work to be sadly joyful. While this sounds contradictory, consider that some of the main characters die an early death, but they die for love and in the end, love does indeed conquer all and provide a happy ending to the story. If you are reluctant to entertain the beliefs presented here, treat this as a wonderful fantasy and let yourself be immersed in this vision of long ago and far away. If you enjoy historical fiction, there is a lot to enjoy here. While not a conventional romance, love abounds in this tale and proves that true love does indeed overcome all odds.
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LibraryThing member oxlena
Tragic and heartbreaking, but absolutely amazing. I enjoyed it very much. I'd definitely recommend to those who enjoy romances.
LibraryThing member AuthorMarion
I have always been a lover of the peony flower so I bought this book simply because of the artistic rendition of the flower on the cover and the flower name in the title. I haven't read too many stories about Asian life and culture because the names of people are difficult for me to read. I do
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think there is much to be said, however, for the romance of such an exotic area.

As you will have gathered from other reviews, this book is set in 17th century China and deals with Peony, a young girl who lets romance carry her away during a theatrical performance that takes place at her family villa on her sixteen birthday. Peony tells the story of what transpires and how she falls in love with a young poet to whom she eventually becomes engaged. It is not until Peony recounts the preparations for what she believes is her wedding day that she realizes that the dress she is wearing is wrong and there are other things that are out of place. What she is witnessing is nothing less than her funeral. From that point on she, as a ghost, is allowed to follow the lives of her relatives and her young poet. Not until some years later, when her family and her would-have-been-husband's family finally mourn her properly, is her spirit allowed to find peace on the other side.

This story is an engrossing tale of the culture of long-ago China and the place in society that women held. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and give Lisa See kudos for presenting the story in such a unique fashion
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LibraryThing member jo-jo
I have been pondering this book for a couple of days considering how I can give a thorough review of it without revealing the whole plot to you. I will start by saying that this book had my emotions all over the place. I started out loving it, after about the one-third mark I really was very upset
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with it, and then at about the halfway point I fell in love with it even more. Like that really helped, right?

Lisa See is a very talented author that really gives us a glimpse of what it was like during the 1600's for Chinese women. She really has a magical way of describing the traditions and cultural beliefs in her novels. Just as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan focused on one girl's life, so does Peony in Love, but Lisa See does this in a different way by showing us another realm in the Chinese beliefs.

During this time period of Chinese culture, marriages were arranged between the parents, and many times the betrothed did not see each other until their wedding day. Because of this practice many young maidens could only dream of true love, and their dreams were fueled by the story of The Peony Pavillion, which is a famous Chinese opera. It is important to remember that girls were not encouraged to read, so if they did learn how to read, the books that were available to them were limited. Peony's father was very happy that his daughter could read so she would be able carry on intelligent conversations with her husband when she married, and also teach her sons how to read. The only books that Peony actually owned were commentaries on The Peony Pavillion, so as her arranged wedding day drew closer she engulfed herself in these books in the hope that true love will reign in the end. A doctor was called several times on Peony's behalf only to diagnose her with lovesickness. I found it very interesting that when Lisa See researched for this book she found that lovesickness was a very common diagnosis that claimed many young maidens lives.

The strong voice of women and mother/daughter relationships were a very important part of this novel. Peony does not get to see the personal side of her mother until later in the novel, but when she learns of her mother's loves and desires, it is inspiring. Peony's mother was persistent in teaching her the Four Virtues and the Three Obediences, but she really did not take the opportunity to build a relationship with her. When it was brought to Peony's attention that her mother at one time enjoyed reading and writing as much as she did, you could see that Peony really developed a new respect and admiration for her.

There were several parts of the novel that included groups of women getting together and discussing commentaries or poetry that they wished to have published. The Three Wives Commentary that is revealed towards the end of the novel is an actual commentary about The Peony Pavillion that was published. It seemed to be quite common for family members to publish women's writing projects after their deaths. I find it odd that if it were good enough to publish after they were dead, why they couldn't go public with their writing when they were alive. I know the answers but I don't have to agree with them!

Lisa See also shows us the various stages of the afterlife, which is very descriptive. I must admit that at first I really had a problem with this part of the book. I had to remind myself that this is the Chinese culture and this is what they believe in. Lisa See is just trying to give us a glimpse into that belief. I read the interview in the back of my book after I was done with it-wishing I had read it first, because it really helped to open my mind.

As I said earlier, I really loved this novel but know that it is not for everyone.
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LibraryThing member vanedow
I'm going to do something a little different with this book and describe it in terms of the themes it encompasses.

The power of art. The play, The Peony Pavilion, is a major force in this story. Girls all over China are influenced by the play and become lovesick, even starving themselves as they
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are drawn to the dream of the powerful romance of the opera. Over and over through this story, poetry is used to communicate hope and loss.

Women's freedom. Peony and her peers are extremely restricted. She describes them as "trapped like good-luck crickets in bamboo-and-laquer cages." Being from a wealthy and privilaged family, Peony has never even been outside the walls of her home. Her only freedom lies in her education and writings, but even that is ridiculed as unworthy because she is a woman.

Love. Peony's romantic notions of love grow and change as time passes in the story. From her relationships with and understanding of other women, to her love for her mysterious poet, she grows and matures from a well-meaning but basicly clueless girl to a true understanding of love and selflessness.

In summary, this is a wonderful, but emotionally difficult book. There were several points where I just wanted to put it down and walk away, but I kept being pulled back by the intense story line and bewitching prose. There are some strong similarities in themes and style to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and if you like one, you will most likely enjoy the other.

The final word: 5 out of 5. Highly recommended, unless you are looking for simple, uncomplicated happy endings.
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LibraryThing member SandSing7
When the novel starts, Peony is ready to be married to a man of her father's choosing. In a series of scenes that are both melodramatic and totally unconvincing, she meets and falls in love with (unbeknownst to her) her soon to be husband. Thinking she is going to be married to another man, she
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throws herself into the study of an opera and starves herself to death. Consequently, she becomes a hungry ghost, trapped in a kind of spiritual limbo. She then proceeds to torture her husband's second wife by trying to live out through this woman what could have been her life had she not been an idiot and killed herself.

Is this an oversimplification? Absolutly! However, I found no sympathy for Peony. Her death was not a production of her society or her surroundings, but of her own selfish impulses. Why spend your whole afterlife obsessed with a man who you've met for 20 minutes and to whom you were never married?
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LibraryThing member glassreader
Peony in Love is a rich story that grips your attention from the start. Lisa See writes in such a way that the characters become real to the reader.

The story takes place in seventeenth-century China when cultural norms and practices were beginning to come into question. Women's rights, especially
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the right to be heard, and women's equality in society are strong topics that See deals with throughout the story.

Lisa See is an extraordinary story-teller who enables the reader to see, taste and smell the things she describes. However, in Peony in Love, she does lack in decribing fully the women's customs which is key for understanding the main characters. I was glad I had read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan previously in which she descibed the customs in full. Also, the story does drag on for the last 50 pages.

Overall, a wonderful book. I was pleased to receive my copy through the Eary Reviewers Program!
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LibraryThing member hoosgracie
Initially, I really disliked the character of Peony, but I ended up enjoying the book immensely and grew to love the character. Wonderful story.
LibraryThing member Litfan
Peony in Love is a hauntingly resonant novel that encompasses themes of enduring love, the constraints of duty, and the desire to have a voice. The story centers around Peony's enchantment with an opera, The Peony Pavilion, in which two characters fall in love in a dream and transcend death to be
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The novel details Peony's own journey through love and life. A rich sense of setting transports the reader through the physical world of seventeenth-century China, as well as the spirit world. The tale is laced with fascinating details on Chinese culture, politics, and spiritual beliefs.

See's writing is nearly flawless and instantly pulls the reader into the story. We journey along with Peony as she maneuvers through countless obstacles to be with her true love. See finds that perfect balance in which those reading her words want to rush forward to find out what happens, and slow down to savor the language of the novel at once. It is rare that a book captivates and transports as this one does.
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LibraryThing member goldiebear
I have always been a big fan of Chinese literature. I find it fascinating. This book was no exception. I have to say, it wasn't as great as See's previous work, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan however.

I found the book a little too "dreamy" for me. I tend to like novels with a little more
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reality-based. However, I found Lisa See to be a fantastic storyteller and her character development is exquisite.

I received this book through the early reviewers program and was quite happy!
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LibraryThing member MegsieG
Peony in Love, by Lisa See, is an epic story which seeks to weave together the lives and souls of three young women during the transition from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty.
Peony in Love is a historical novel, in that the characters are based on real people and loosly on real events. The
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reader can expect to learn about the changing mores of Ming-Qing dynasty China as they pertain to womens' roles in society. To those who read Asian women's fiction, many of these ideas will not be new. However, it is Lisa See's story that sets this novel apart from the works of Amy Tan, Kathryn Harrison and Arthur Golden.
Peony is a fully realized character whose struggle for self-realization takes us through the obstacles of a changing world to the murky obstacles of the afterworld. Her struggle, like that of the opera she so admires, is both a political and personal one.
At times, Peony in Love can be didactic in its desire to drive home the point that women have been needlessly silenced. And yet, this is an idea that is dangerous to forget.
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LibraryThing member magst
I was completely swept away by this story. The plot, characters, and setting were all so magical it was hard for me to put the book down. Lisa See’s beautiful writing style allows the story of these three women to come to life. I know the Chinese culture is steeped in tradition and customs, and I
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found See’s depictions of rituals that were performed for both the material and spiritual world to be amazing. See gives you a view into both worlds as you walk along with Peony through the days leading up to her wedding and the days after her death. This is one book that will remain on my bookshelf so I can refer back to it as often as I want.
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LibraryThing member battlemaiden
I received my copy of this book in the mail as part of the Early Reviewer program. As a fan of historical fiction (especially stories about women), I was anxious to start the novel. Focusing on an arranged marriage that never quite reaches fruition, "Peony in Love" desperately wants to be a love
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story. It wants to be a story about love that is stronger than death; it craves to be about a kind of rare love that will transcend any time, place, or dimension.

After only one chapter through it, however, I thought, “This is awful!” The writing bored me. The further I read, the more I wanted to be shown rather than told about the emotions that play such a large role in the novel. I wanted more depth in the writing, more imagery. The only scene that really captured my full attention in the beginning was the very graphic description of the foot binding process. This was a fantastic depiction which caused me to physically cringe and shudder.

I did, at times, have to force myself to continue turning pages. Later on in the novel, as we learn more about Peony (our heroine) and her family’s history, I did soften toward the often very bland writing style. I developed a fondness for the characters. I even wondered if perhaps Lisa See wrote this way intentionally. Did she purposely write in such a plain style to underscore or accentuate the heavy emotions that we are told are so prevalent throughout this story? Maybe.

This wasn’t one of the best novels I’ve read in recent memory, nor was it the worst. It was simply, to me, “ok.” It did, however, spark enough interest in me that I think I may check out her See’s other novel, which was apparently a best-seller, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."
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LibraryThing member eileenmary
Didn't care for this one as much as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Story told from perspective of one of Three Wives of 17th Century China and THe Peony Pavilion but it just didn't capture my interest as well as Snow Flower did.
LibraryThing member ashley_schmidt
This book was pretty good. I thought the premise of the book was very interesting a creative as Lisa See played with the narrator. However, there were points in the novel where it got a little slow. The cultural elements of the novel were very insightful. I would recommend this book.
LibraryThing member pandalibrarian
What a great novel. Peony is a young girl betrothed to be married to a young man she's never met. Her father is a scholar and director of opera. For Peony's 16th birthday (or so she thinks), her father arranges for her favorite opera to be performed over three or four days. Unknown to her, she
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actually sees and meets her betrothed and falls in love with him. But, thinking that she's going to marry someone else, she becomes lovesick. The rest of the story is about death, afterlife, and love. Most of all, love. The author's descriptions of the landscape, her characters, and her dialogue all transport the reader back in time to share in the experiences of the characters. I also liked the author's focus on women poets and scholars at a time when men traditionally dominated these fields.
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LibraryThing member ImaBooklover
Although this book started very slowly, by the end, I was glad to have read it. I also was very glad that long ago I had taken a Chinese literature course in college. The story unfolded slowly, as so much of Chinese thought and literature does; just when the reader thinks she has a grasp of the
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story, another facet is revealed and the reader, just like the character, Peony, must see deeper into the heart of the emotions, customs and the story of Peony in Love. So, readers, be patient and let the story unfold.
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LibraryThing member eenerd
This book was weird. Whenever I wasn't reading it, I didn't care for it...then I would pick it back up and enjoy it. The poetry part was boring, and alot of the analysis dialogue was really REALLY boring. But the fantasy aspects of it were really cool and fun to read. If you can get over the
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annoying wannabe academic aspects of this book, it is a good read.
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LibraryThing member InsatiableB
I wasn't sure how to rate Peony In Love. Part of me feels like I should start to employ a different rating system (more systematic) than my current "pick a number" method. Any suggestions?

The reason I had a hard time was that the writing style of Lisa See really was lovely - as always. And the book
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was so well done. The story ebbed and flowed in such a fluid way; which really is an accomplishment for such an abstract idea. But I just didn't like reading about poor Peony in the afterlife. Haunting her relatives and her finance's new wives... The concepts were all a bit strange to me.

This is a little blurb I took from
So begins Peony's unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow -- as Lisa See's haunting new novel takes readers back to 17th century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed. Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place -- even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence . . . a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors are worshiped, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth.
Based on a true story, Peony in Love uses the richness and magic of the Chinese afterlife to transcend death and explore the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, it’s about universal themes: the bonds of female friendship, the power of words, the desire all women have to be heard, and finally those emotions that are so strong that they transcend time, place, and perhaps even death.

It really was fascinating to read about the ancient Chinese beliefs about the afterlife and, as in Snowflower and the Secret Fan, the reader was immersed in the mysterious customs of foot-binding, the women's secret world and the mother love phenomenon. But I enjoyed Snowflower more, maybe because I could understand the human realm that she lived in better than the ghostly world of Peony.
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LibraryThing member vivT
Peony In Love pales in comparison to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I appreciate the detail given into describing the culture, beliefs and mannerisms unique of China past, however I think the amount of poetry used in the story, makes it too complicated and at times, arduous to read. Perhaps if
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preserved in its original Chinese text, it would've been beautiful, but being a translated English version, the lyrics of the poems just loses its enchantment and dulls. However to some extent, I still enjoyed the book; I sighed for Peony, resented Tan Ze's selfishness and admired Yi's graciousness. If one has yet to read any of Lisa See's novels, perhaps then it would be better to start with this and then only Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Otherwise one may find oneself distracted with comparing both books instead of appreciating the individual beauty of Peony In Love.
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LibraryThing member Booknose
In this coming of age novel by Lisa See, I found the prose to be lovely and the setting beautifully described, if somewhat overly mellifluous. I'm not much of a historical fiction reader but had heard so much about See's previous novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan that I wanted to give this a
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try. However beautifully written and richly described, I found the reading more and more monotonous as I progressed through the book, it was a slow and arduous journey without much reward in the end. It could have been my lack of interest in the subject and era because I did find the writing to be above average. I will still read See's previous novel but I hope that it will be better and faster paced than Peony in Love. I still gave this three stars because of the effort, attention to detail and historical accuracy that went into it. See is a talented author with an obvious love for her subject, even if I didn't care for it, I am sure many who love historical fiction as well as a finely woven, gently told tale will like this book.
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